Tunisia ex-president Ben Ali buried in Medina
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Tunisia ex-president Ben Ali buried in Medina

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 83, was first leader to be toppled by Arab Spring, viewed as bulwark against Islamist extremism, but muzzled opposition and shunned democracy

Mourners carry the coffin of the late former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during his funeral at the Prophet Mohammed's mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Medina, Islam's second holiest city, on September 21, 2019. (Majed Al Charfi / AFP)
Mourners carry the coffin of the late former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during his funeral at the Prophet Mohammed's mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Medina, Islam's second holiest city, on September 21, 2019. (Majed Al Charfi / AFP)

MEDINA, Saudi Arabia — Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was buried in the Muslim holy city of Medina on Saturday, an AFP photographer said, after he died in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali, who died Thursday in the city of Jeddah, was laid to rest at Al-Baqi cemetery next to the Prophet Mohammed’s mosque — a place of great reverence for Muslims.

His body, covered by a green shroud, was carried to his final resting place by a procession of about a dozen men.

Some dressed in white, and others in suits, they crossed a marble forecourt in the shadow of the green dome of the mosque, before entering the cemetery.

Some of Ben Ali’s family were to receive condolences on Sunday in an upmarket suburb of Tunis, according to a small notice published in Tunisia’s La Presse newspaper.

The Saudi media and authorities have not made any comment about his death.

Ben Ali, the first leader to be toppled by the Arab Spring revolts, died aged 83.

In this file photo taken on March 20, 2006 former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali waves to the crowd upon arrival in Rades stadium where he delivered his speech on the 50th anniversary of independence of Tunisia from France. (Photo by Handout / AFP)

He ruled his North African country from 1987 until 2011 and was viewed by some as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, but he faced criticism for muzzling the opposition and his reluctance to embrace democracy.

Eventually, growing frustration over unemployment and high prices snapped.

In late 2010, a young trader in Sidi Bouzid, in the impoverished center of the country, set fire to himself in protest at humiliation by police.

That sparked protests which rocked Tunisia and triggered a deadly clampdown.

But the protesters won: on January 14, 2011 Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia where he stayed until his death.

His rapid departure sparked a string of similar uprisings across the region, toppling Egyptian and Libyan strongmen Hosni Mubarak and Moamer Kadhafi.

The ex-leader’s wife, Leila Trabesli, who has led a comfortable and discreet life in exile with daughters Nesrine and Halima — along with son Mohamed — has little incentive to return home.

She faces heavy sentences for embezzlement, alongside possession of weapons, drugs and archaeological artifacts.

Ben Ali himself was sentenced several times to life in prison, including for the bloody suppression of protests in the last weeks of his autocratic rule that killed more than 300 people.

He never faced justice.

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